Attempts to commemorate the 1978 Jonestown Massacre, when more than 900 members of a religious cult committed mass suicide are mired in controversy after its founder’s name was etched on the memorial Nick Allen reports for London’s Telegraph.
On Nov 18, 1978 a total of 918 people died in north-west Guyana where American cult leader Jim Jones had set up a utopian community under the banner of his quasi-religious People’s Temple organisation.
The horrific events began when US congressman Leo Ryan, three journalists and a temple defector were ambushed and killed on a remote jungle airstrip.
They had been visiting Jonestown on a fact-finding mission to investigate reports of human rights abuses against members.
Following the assassination of the congressman Jones orchestrated a ritual mass slaughter, what he called “revolutionary suicide.”
Members, about a third of whom were children, poisoned themselves with cyanide.
More than 400 bodies, including many of the children, were eventually buried in a mass grave in California, where the cult had been based before relocating to Guyana.
Last week construction of a memorial, consisting of four granite slabs and bearing the names of the dead, including “James Warren Jones” was largely completed at the Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland, California.
But the memorial has been criticised by Jynona Norwood who lost 27 relatives at Jonestown. She says the inclusion of the cult leader’s name “desecrates the memory of the victims.”
Her Guyana Tribute Foundation’s is suing the cemetery in attempt to get the memorial torn down and a different one they have designed put up.
As the first stage of the court battle unfolded at Alameda County Superior Court she said: “Why would anyone want to honour an Osama bin Laden, an Adolf Hitler? That’s who Jim Jones is.”
Vernon Goins, Norwood’s lawyer, told the hearing: “It would be absolutely devastating for the families of those killed, massacred, murdered at Jonestown to come and see this memorial, and come across the name of Jim Jones on it.”
Judge Robert McGuiness denied the foundation’s request for a temporary restraining order against the cemetery, which means finishing touches to the memorial can go ahead.
A second court hearing will be held after the foundation requested an injunction to stop an unveiling ceremony for the new memorial planned for May 29.
The judge said: “When the dust settles, it is the memory of what happened that day that is important. But how that is expressed is in the eyes of the beholder.”
The memorial was commissioned by a survivors group led by Jones’ adopted son, Jim Jones Jr. The group raised $18,000 (£11,000) from about 120 victims’ families and the cemetery donated $23,000 (£14,000).
Mr Jones Jr was 18 at the time of the massacre and tried to stop it. He survived and has since converted to Roman Catholicism, working as a medical equipment salesman.
He believes his adoptive father was insane but his name should still go on the memorial because he was one of the dead.
He said: “Our memorial removes individual opinions and makes it factual.”
John Cobb, a survivor of the massacre who lost 10 family members, was among those backing the memorial. Following the judge’s decision, he said: “I am ecstatic. At this point, we just want some type of memorial to remember our loved ones.”
Norwood’s group had been raising money for their own $100,000 (£62,000) memorial, a large granite wall, at the cemetery since the 1990s and it would not have included Jones’ name.
She claims the cemetery told her in 2009 that her design was too large. She has filed a lawsuit against the cemetery alleging breach of contract, misrepresentation and fraud, and seeking compensation for money already spent on her monument.